Bizarre Circumstances Surround Bakersfield Steel Guitarist’s Death
In a sad and bizarre story, the country music community in Bakersfield, California is mourning the tragic loss of a local steel guitar player and career firefighter after both he and his wife were found dead on a remote dirt road in the Mojave Desert. Though authorities do not believe foul play was involved, just how the couple ended up so far away from their home and in the middle of the desert currently remains a mystery.
88-year-old Larry Petree and his wife Betty of 60 years were found Sunday, August 21st on a deserted dirt road in the Mojave Desert seven miles east of California City. Larry was in the driver’s seat of the car, and Betty was leaning against a rear tire. The vehicle was out of gas, leaving local authorities to conclude they likely ran out of gas and were stranded in the desert. How they got there, and what they were doing so far away from their home has still not been determined.
Larry Petree was born in Paden, Oklahoma in 1933, and moved to Bakersfield in 1942 with his family at the age of 9. Graduating from Bakersfield High School in 1951, he later joined the Army before going to work for the Kern County Fire Department. Meanwhile, Petree played steel guitar in the legendary Bakersfield honky tonk scene during its heyday, regularly performing with Red Simpson at the iconic Bakersfield venue Trouts. Petree also appears on numerous Red Simpson recordings.
Petree played with some of the major artists who would launch national careers from the blue-collar California town. But instead of leaving on the road for stardom, Larry chose to stick around Bakersfield to stay close to wife Betty, and to keep his job at the fire department, which he worked at for 30 years. Larry Petree continued to perform with local artists later in life such as Tommy Hays and the Western Swingsters, and Jennifer Keel.
Considered nothing short of as legend in Bakersfield circles, Petree played steel guitar for new outfits as well, including Bakersfield revivalists The Soda Crackers. Larry Petree had performed with The Soda Crackers at the Bakersfield Hall of Fame three weeks prior to the disappearance. Family friend Kim Hays says that on the way to the Hall of Fame show, Larry had shown signs of becoming disoriented, and she had to help him get to the gig, leading to speculation that perhaps Larry had become disoriented once again, and that is how the couple ended up in the desert.
“His smile is something I’ll never forget. When he smiled he had these big cheeks. And there’s no way you couldn’t smile when you saw Larry smiling,” says 29-year-old Zane Adamo of The Soda Crackers. “And just the nicest guy ever. And he had such good wisdom, and I remember talking to him and just listening to every word he said.”
The local Sheriff’s Department is currently not investigating the incident further, but many in Bakersfield’s music community still have questions, while mourning the loss of this long-time friend and musician.
August 27, 2022 @ 12:33 pm
Damn sad story! We’ll probably never know what reason the couple had to make a desert road trip. It had to be accidental given the circumstances. May God bless the couple with angels’ wings. May they rest forever together.
August 27, 2022 @ 4:45 pm
Makes me think of the mysterious death of an elderly Texas couple Lela and Raymond Howard that inspired the Fastball song “The Way”. Mike and The Moonpies did a great cover of the song.
David: The Duke of Everything
August 27, 2022 @ 8:44 pm
Yea I thought it was weird when I had read about it too. Didn’t say whether they had cell phones or not. I could see one being disoriented but both. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter. May they both rest in peace.
August 27, 2022 @ 9:31 pm
Petree was 88 and his wife was evidently in her 80s, too.
I’ve seen stories like this before of elderly people getting lost and driving for hours and many miles until finally turning up somewhere or being discovered.
It’s a very sad and unfortunate story, but I’d hardly call it bizarre. It’s almost predictable if someone with the onset of dementia continues to drive without intervention.
August 28, 2022 @ 5:48 am
Didn’t know Petree, but growing up in Bakersfield, my father was into the country music scene there and of the same age group. He was friends with many of the musicians in the area and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he knew him. He was also a transplant from the south (Arkansas). When I was a kid it seemed most everyone in town was a transplant from somewhere in the south, and Bakersfield was often referred to as Oklahoma in the middle of California.
One of the things my parents liked to do was to travel out into the desert areas of Kern County, see the sights such as the Joshua trees, and visit the little ghost towns from the gold rush days.I spent a lot of time out in the desert myself, and it is not an unusual destination for people in the area. Though i’m not trying to speculate on why the Petree’s themselves where out there, simply visiting the area and becoming lost is not out of the question.
Sad to see distinguished citizens from my home town pass in such a tragic manner. RIP
August 28, 2022 @ 12:55 pm
Are there any young steel guitar players?
August 28, 2022 @ 1:30 pm
There are a lot of great young steel guitar players. Zachary Moulton of Mike and the Moonpies might be my favorite steel guitarist at the moment, and the bass player Omar can also play steel guitar. “Hammerin’ ” Hank Early of the Turnpike Troubadours, “Smokin’ Brett Resnick who plays with Kelsey Waldon and Kacey Musgraves, Spencer Cullum who plays with a bunch of folks in east Nashville and also now backs Miranda Lambert. Brett Robinson of Whitey Morgan and the 78s, Chris Scruggs, though he plays mostly pedal-less steel. Might make for a good article running them all down, though I’m afraid I would forget some.
Steve Earle is a Guitar God
August 29, 2022 @ 3:55 pm
awesome idea & i hope you have time to do so in the future.
steel guitar is my second favorite instrument behind slide guitar. it’s also why I listen to so much country & americana
August 29, 2022 @ 5:54 am
the guy who plays steel for C. W. Godwin and Zach Bryan was recently featured on the Grady Smith’s channel taling about stell guitar. Cool guy.
August 31, 2022 @ 3:59 pm
Nick Green of the Soda Crackers is a great young pedal steel player as is Caleb Melo of the Jesse Daniels Band. Both are from California.
August 29, 2022 @ 4:10 pm
“How many of you that sit and judge me even walk the streets of Bakersfield?”
August 31, 2022 @ 11:40 am
Grand Ole Country Bunker was devastated to hear the news about Larry and Betty’s passing. We had just worked with The SodaCrackers on July 30th in Bakersfield in creating a new series of shows that honors the Living Legends of Bakersfield, “Pioneers of The Bakersfield Sound”. Larry Petree was our Steel Guitar playing Legend. He was fantastic. Larry back in March of this year at the opening of The Bakersfield Sound museum. We send out prayers of comfort for Larry’s Country music family and close friends.
We posted a few videos of Larry’s last performance on our Instagram page. @GrandOleCountryBunker
We attempted to post the video link in the website area.